Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Brought to you by Mutual of Omaha

our special kitty
The bobcat situation is a mess. He was back nine times today starting at 7:30 in the morning and most recently just a few minutes ago. The poor chickens go berserk, the goats get agitated, and Mark or I run outside and chase him away. We carry a baseball bat now; that cat is big. No more chicken deaths, though, because they're locked in the coop.

Yesterday, I visited the county web site to see what our options were and called one of the agencies listed there. The woman I talked to was well-meaning. Well-meaning to bobcats.

I briefly explained our problem, asked for suggestions. Her reply began with lines to this effect: "One of the reasons we all love living in this beautiful county is the abundance of wildlife. Have you heard the coyotes at night lately?" She asked the question with joy and wonder in her voice and I should have ended the call right then because we were so clearly tuned to different stations.

She told me that bobcat control is not about removal, but coexistence. She warned me that to trap and relocate an animal it is both inhumane and illegal. I had not brought this up, but apparently she worried I might I start looking at Havahart traps online, which of course I had already done. According to her, we need to either get rid of our own own animals or erect insuperable barriers, like "coyote rollers," that would be installed on top of our existing fence at considerable expense. Then she pointed out that if we have overhanging trees, which we do, these will allow the bobcat access to our backyard no matter what barriers are in place, including coyote rollers or an electric wire.

He stalks around the coop as the chickens have a collective nervous breakdown.
In short, she had nothing to offer. The bobcat can kill every chicken and goat on the premises and there's nothing we can do about it. Legally, he seems to have the run of the place. Is this possible? Did I misunderstand something? I will make more calls if the reign of terror continues much longer.

Every time that bobcat came back today, I hated him a little more. Forcing people to accept the presence of aggressive predators in their backyard does not breed respect and awe, it breeds rage. I would add that a wild animal who subsists on pets in a suburban town is not living a very wild life.

I know this is a sensitive and controversial subject and some people have strong feelings on the other side and I respect that. Let me assure you that no harm will come to this cat at my hand. The plan is to keep the chickens in their coop for the indefinite future and hope the goats are too big to tempt him. I will chase him off as necessary. By May when Natalie kids, maybe he will have forgotten about us or moved on or been hit by a Prius.
He can write about this on his college applications.

Monday, January 28, 2013


I just handed in my story about Catalina, an uncommonly fast turnaround for a pro like me who likes to forget everything she thought and felt while reporting a story and then try to piece it together again months later when she's completely lost interest.

So, we have a serious bobcat problem. On Saturday, a bobcat took a chicken from our yard. The other chickens started yelling, I ran outside, saw the cat slithering over the fence with a dead chicken in its mouth. Well, well, well, I thought, what a brave and naughty little animal. I was not overly upset. I decided it was a female who was pregnant or had cubs (kittens?) and I would not begrudge her a chicken.

This morning, the bobcat took another chicken. Same routine. I felt less magnanimous and the bobcat became a male. I thought, at least he didn't get Rhoda, our favorite hen, and I'm sure he's full now, but tomorrow the chickens are staying in their coop.

You know where this is going. Rhoda. That was about an hour later. I was working on the Catalina story and heard the chickens yelling. I threw a watering can and scared the cat away before the kill was complete and Rhoda died on the patio while I patted her feathers. A minute later, as I was putting Rhoda in an empty feed sack, the chickens started freaking out and I saw the bobcat had jumped back on the fence to our yard and he just crouched there staring at me, which felt like the bobcat equivalent of giving me the finger. I threw a pot at him and he jumped off the fence onto the street. I ran out to the road and chased him into the shrubbery and blackberry vines across the street, way deep, far, far, far, and by the time I came back up and had walked in the front door, the chickens were again screaming and I went out and the bobcat was heading over the fence with the third dead chicken of the day.

A temporary solution is to keep the chickens in their coop for the indefinite future, which they will hate, but if they had bigger brains I know they'd agree that dying is worse.

I got to thinking. Would a hungry, ballsy bobcat try to take down a goat?

According to the internet, yes.

I have no idea what I'm going to do, but I really hate this empowered bobcat killing things on our patio in the middle of the day. I would call animal control, but let's just say there are some issues related to our beloved goats that I would need to think through beforehand.

We had a rat problem about a year ago. I didn't talk about it much as it was shameful and vile. I put out traps and never caught a single rat. I locked one of our cats in the coop and she never caught a rat. There were more and more rats down there all the time, rooting around in the chicken coop, scuttling down weird little holes, and, once, running right across poor Mark's foot. I would see 4 or 5 rats at a time and it became so disgusting I started thinking about getting rid of our chickens.

And then one day Mark and I realized we had not seen a rat for a month. And now it has been many months. It was one of those blessed and mysterious gifts from the universe.

But I don't think it was a gift from the universe anymore. I think it was the bobcat.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Thanks. Wow. Help.

The green chile posole from Homesick Texan has supplanted the seven chile chili as my favorite recipe in Lisa Fain's wonderful book. It is tangy, spicy, hearty, and brothy. And green. I had been missing vegetables. I made chicken broth from scratch for this perfect soup which probably contributed to its perfection. Recipe here. Make it. Don't omit the lime or the shredded jack cheese. They're essential.
Lisa Fain's grandmother's chocolate pie was swell, like chocolate pudding in a crust with a ladylike cap of meringue. We enjoyed this tasty old-fashioned dessert. Isabel offered the first dissent on the vegetable oil crust, said she didn't like it as much as my usual crusts which are made with butter and/or lard. I would have to taste two crusts side by side to opine with authority, but I think she means the vegetable oil crust is "crackery" rather than flaky. It has less body and less flavor. But the difference is slight and this crust pre-bakes like a dream. Fain's recipe doesn't call for weighing the crust down with rice or beans when you pre-bake. Unheard of!  She says you can use weights if you want, but she doesn't call for it. Who wants to line a pie shell with rice? I don't. I dread it. It's that irksome extra step that puts me off making a pie that requires a pre-baked shell. So I tried baking without. Miracle. No bubbles, no shrinkage. I like this pie crust recipe.
There will be no more Homesick Texan reports until the weekend. I am on Catalina Island. Magazine business. I'm moving off of food topics now, because I've got other stories to tell and a few people, like my sister, will enjoy them, but you can safely stop reading if you're here for the recipe commentary.

Yesterday I mistook the arrival time of my flight in Los Angeles for the departure time from San Francisco. I dawdled at the library looking for books for the trip and was happily eating a tofu wrap at the Marin Airporter bus stop, about to open my "in-demand" copy of Anne Lamott's Help. Thanks. Wow., when I discovered the hideous mistake. Raced back to the car, rollerboard rattling behind. Miss the plane, miss the last boat to Catalina, oh you foolish and careless girl . . .  One hour later I was buckling the seatbelt of 18A, holding my shoes, gasping for breath. If you have any idea what's required to get from the Manzanita bus stop in Mill Valley, California to a seat on a Virgin Atlantic flight to LAX in 60 minutes flat, you are either raising a glass to my awesomeness or pursing your lips at the speeding and unseemly begging into the first-class security line.

I read Help. Thanks. Wow. on the plane. Those are Anne Lamott's three basic prayers. I wasn't raised with religion and am always trying to understand it and this short book was amusing and mildly helpful. Very mildly. I thanked the universe for letting me get to that plane without killing anyone or myself. Thanks. I would have done that anyway. I often thank the universe. It doesn't feel like how I imagine prayer.

Then I started my second "in-demand" library book, Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. I read it on the molded plastic chair at the Long Beach boat terminal, I read it on the boat as we rocked across the channel in the dark, I read it while I drank a buffalo milk (more on that ridiculous and delicious sundae/cocktail later) at a bar here on Catalina. The book is big-hearted, funny, wise, fantastically well written, and I guzzled it down because it was so totally delicious. Wow. Unlike the rest of the world, I didn't get into Wild, but I'd finished Tiny Beautiful Things by midnight.

This book will rub some people the wrong way. I need to say that. Strayed has a strong voice and not everyone is going to dig it. For a while I was recommending Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman to everyone I knew, but I've stopped because one of my best friends and my sister-in-law definitely did not dig it. This is a spot-on and super-clever review of Tiny Beautiful Things if you want to know more before one-click ordering or requesting it from the library. (Justine, you don't need to read the review, just request immediately.)

Anyway, Strayed is one of those cool women writers who toss off  ass**** and mother****** and get away with it and it makes me so jealous. They're tough, useful words, but when I type them I see my mother's face and she looks sad. Disappointed. I'm going to try to embrace jackass, though. That's another Strayed favorite and when I type jackass my mother smiles, very faintly.

The fruit at the hotel continental breakfast here tastes like it was cut with the same knife used to make sashimi. I'm unsure how I'm going to tap into the wonders of this scrubby, rocky island in 2 frigid days and write a sparkling, fun story about it.

Help. And another cup of coffee.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Go Niners!

pavement, cake
Yesterday I was downstairs reading and I heard Mark shouting at the TV. I  came up and he said, "The 49ers beat the Falcons." I said, "So they won the Super Bowl!" Ha ha ha, except I wasn't joking. I know about as much about sports as he knows about Texas sheet cake. And yet somehow it works.

Such great and interesting comments on the last few posts I'm going to address some of them here.

1. A commenter and now a friend have asked whether The Homesick Texan is a reasonable book for vegetarians and the short answer is, not really. You'd be stuck cooking around the edges of the book. There are some cheese dishes and one enchilada recipe featuring mushrooms, ricotta, and spinach (although it also calls for chicken broth.) It's a pretty meaty book.

2. I can't wrap my head around this vegetable oil pie crust. Why aren't we all using this recipe all the time? Is it because of the unappealing words "vegetable oil?" That seems possible. Anyway, I just mixed up another batch, this time adding sugar, and the oily doughball is resting in the refrigerator prior to being employed in Lisa Fain's grandmother's chocolate pie, which is Fain's favorite dessert. Tonight.

Also, I pulled out my copy of Cooking for Mr. Latte by Amanda Hesser on the recommendation of witloof, because it contains a similar v******** o** tart dough.  As soon as apricots come in season, I'm making this tart. Flipping the pages I remembered how much I loved this book when I acquired it back in 2003. For about 6 months the only salad I made was Hesser's refreshing romaine, arugula, and dill chopped salad. Meanwhile, my friend Amy became fixated on the walnut cake.  Every time we went to her house, there would be the walnut cake. She fed it to her kids for breakfast. Once we went over and she couldn't get it out of the pan so she scooped it out in ragged chunks and served it with whipped cream and it was delicious. I think of it as Amy's cake and always will.

3. I have enjoyed having a big pot of chili around. Friday night Mark went to a basketball game, Isabel went to babysit, and I heated up leftover chili and Owen and I ate in front of the TV. We watched Queen of Versailles. I won't say much about this bizarre and improbably moving documentary because A.O. Scott already said it all better than I ever could. In fact, all I will say is that you should see it. Chili and Queen of Versailles. They kind of go together. A perfect Friday night.

4. The best fish tacos I've ever eaten were at Tacos Baja Ensenada in Los Angeles. They had crunch (unhealthy coating on deep-fried fish?) and a creamy, mayonnaise-like sauce. Crunch and creamy mayonnaise are now my personal preferences in fish tacos. The Homesick Texan's fish tacos, which I made the other night, satisfy with the creamy sauce, but aren't crunchy enough. You marinate tilapia (or cod) in a chile paste, quickly saute, and fold in tortillas with cole slaw. If you want to see a picture, they are on the cover of her book. They were good, just not my ideal.

5. Yesterday morning I made her pecan coffee cake (Mickey cake).

deck railing, cake
It's a very standard streusel coffee cake baked in a cast-iron skillet, fluffy and delicious. Her mother called coffee cake "Mickey cake," an allusion to Maurice Sendak's phenomenally creepy In the Night Kitchen, which Fain loved as a child. Fain: "I'm pretty sure In the Night Kitchen influenced not only my desire to live in New York City but also my love of cooking. A most significant coffee cake indeed!"

6. Yesterday afternoon, I baked her Texas sheet cake and even as I was mixing it knew I wasn't going to like it because it contains one of my least favorite combinations of flavors: chocolate and cinnamon. Strictly a matter of taste. I took the cake to my sister's house for Sunday dinner and the others scarfed it up with enthusiasm, so if you like chocolate and cinnamon, give the cake a shot. Recipe here. I prefer the Pioneer Woman's chocolate sheet cake, which is almost identical, minus offensive cinnamon.

7. Finally, before we got to the cake, my sister served a stupendous kale and brussels sprout salad. I ate fourths even as Mark was muttering, "brussels sprouts are not a human food." Like I said, somehow it works! The recipe for the salad is here

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Chili and chess pie

There used to be a story with this.
Yesterday I posted about The Homesick Texan's pumpkin empanadas (good) and carnitas (great) and my new prescription reading glasses (life changing) and two people commented, one of them praising the photo of the empanadas and the other telling me I was "too funny." Thank you. Both those comments made me happy. This morning I did something stupid and the post is gone. Here's the link to the carnitas recipe. You should try it. That's the big takeaway from the lost post.

Also, here's the grapefruit desserts story I was working on last month. Maybe I'll do a sequel after I make grapefruit tart, grapefruit souffle, grapefruit pudding, and grapefruit curd. I just couldn't squeeze them all in before the deadline.

Ok, back to The Homesick Texan, which I obviously love. Lisa Fain's seven chile chili might be my favorite dish in the book. Is it outstanding chili or do I just love chili? I don't know. But we ate it last night and it was a smash hit.

Fain offers two chili recipes in her book. I made her one-hour chili for the frito pie and as the name suggests, it's a quick and easy ground beef concoction. We've all had a variation on that chili before and it's fine. This second chili is a heroic production that begins with a trip to the Mexican market to try to track down ancho, pasilla, guajillo, chipotle, pequin, and arbol chiles. (The seventh chile is powdered cayenne.) Then you need to chop a 4-pound hunk of beef chuck into 1/4 inch pieces, an experience I enjoyed about as much as getting my eyes dilated. After that you cook the beef with the chiles for roughly 6 hours until the mixture thickens. It's incredible looking stuff, this chili, dense, iridescent, almost black. I doubt it matters that you use every single variety of chile she lists, but it's fun to imagine it does. Recipe for monumentally delicious chile is here.

For dessert I made Fain's chess pie, which has some issues, starting with the name.

I would call this lemon chess pie, because it contains 1/2 cup of lemon juice plus zest and it tasted like lemon pie, whereas plain chess pie tastes like sugar and butter. But it's her pie and she can call it what she wants. She doesn't tell you what size pie plate to use so I assumed 9-inch, the most commonly used size, and that worked perfectly. I was skeptical of her crust recipe, which comes from her grandmother and was suspiciously uncomplicated. You essentially just stir flour, salt, vegetable oil, and milk in a bowl. No chilling the bowl, no rubbing fat into flour with your fingertips, no home-rendered lard, no vodka, no ice water. And it's a superb crust. Not flaky, but crispy, tasty, absolutely great. I think maybe we get too worked up about pie crusts.

But the biggest issue with the chess pie was my apparent failure to mix the filling until "creamy and well-combined" and while the pie was baking clumps of leathery egg white floated to the top. You can see them in the picture. Blecch. Very unappetizing when you bite into one by accident.

Otherwise? Delicious, delicious lemon chess pie. The recipe for both crust and filling are here.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Burma: earnest summation

I agree with almost everything this reviewer writes about Burma by Naomi Duguid. It's an important book, an informative book, a beautiful and thoughtful book about a little known country and cuisine.

Having said that, I did not find the recipes to be universally spectacular or even universally good. Of the 26 recipes I made, an alarming number fell on the bottom of the ratings chart. Check it out:

worth the price of the book (Kachin pounded beef)  --- 1
great --- 3 (the silky Shan soup, the carrot salad)
good -- 9
so-so -- 12
flat out bad -- 1 

Looking through my notes, I find "not that great" scrawled in the  margin of the recipe for three layer pork with mustard greens and tofu. On the next page beside the recipe for lemongrass ginger sliders: "not my thing in terms of flavor -- very pungent." Next to warming beef curry with tomato: "Unimpressed. Thin. Small chunks of meat in thin spicy broth."

What I'm remembering are a lot of dishes that didn't quite take off, lacked zip, needed serious tinkering. It's always possible the problem was in the execution, but there are enough mediocre results here that it can't be all my fault. And maybe it's not even Duguid's fault. Myanmar hasn't exactly prospered over the last few decades, culturally or economically, and why wouldn't its cuisine reflect its troubles? Why wouldn't its beef stew be thin? It feels snotty to dip into a book about Burmese cooking and complain that not every dish pleases my dainty Western palate.

So let's pretend I didn't just do that and move on to my rapturous praise for the handful of dishes that were totally stunning. Long after I've forgotten the meals I didn't love, I'll remember those that I did, because the winners here were among the best things I've ever cooked. They were so incredibly good I don't regret for a minute buying this book and devoting a couple of months to cooking from its pages.

I'm talking about three dishes in particular: Kachin pounded beef with herbscarrot salad, and the strange, wonderful silky Shan soup.  These happen to be the most exotic dishes I tried in the book and I'm wondering if that might be more than a coincidence. The Kachin beef and carrot salad both involved pounding the central ingredients to break down their fibers. The soup, thickened with chickpea flour, was like a dense, scrumptious porridge. Are the real rewards in Burma found among the recipes that take us furthest from our comfort zone? Did I do myself and the book a disservice by gravitating toward the easier, more familiar dishes?

If I were to throw myself into the book anew I would go straight for the Shan tofu salad made with Shan "tofu," which is not in fact tofu but a simple paste of chickpea flour that you cut into squares. Duguid calls it "one of the great unsung treasures of Southeast Asia, beautiful to look at and a pleasure to eat." I would make the Kachin rice powder soup with chicken and ginger, which appears to be another divine porridge. I'd make the Inle lake rice with garlic oil, which involves kneading jasmine rice with boiled potato, poached fish, and garlic oil. The recipes that call for kneading or pounding -- those are the ones I'd pick if I had it to do over. I'm almost tempted to dive back in.

The book isn't perfect, but given the dearth of books about Burmese cooking, I'm calling it a shelf essential. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

My misspent day

I've spent the better part of this cold, sunny, dismal Sunday trying to write a blog post that linked The Homesick Texan, Hee Haw, Lina Wertmuller, the bad sagas I loved as a teenager (see above), my father, and the SATs, which are looming on Isabel's horizon. I'm throwing in the towel. Can't get the tone right, can't get the argument right, can't get the jokes right, can't get any of it right except the bare-bones Homesick Texan report, which I'm going to post right now while I wait for the oven to heat and listen to the family "respond" to the Golden Globes from the other room, which amounts to Mark calling out that Amy Adams looks pretty.

Wednesday, I bought a 32 oz. brick of Velveeta (smallest size available) to make The Homesick Texan's soft cheese tacos and confirmed that I don't like processed American cheese except on greasy cheeseburgers. American cheese is fundamentally lame and because my mother didn't buy it, I never acquired a taste for it the way I acquired a taste for Tang, equally lame, which she did buy. To make The Homesick Texan tacos, you roll tortillas around really tasty cheddar, lay them out in a pan, then smother in American cheese sauce, a high-low, bland-sharp combination of flavors that, as Lisa Fain puts it, gives the dish "complexity." Yes, it is complex. Still not my thing. Moderately popular with everyone else.

Her carne guisada, however, is great. You cook beef chuck with chiles and tomatoes for a very, very long time until it basically melts into spicy shreds. We've been working our way through the pot of this delicious stuff for the last 5 days.

Hard to see how I was ever going to get from there to Swept Away. I almost pulled it off, but  not quite. Wish me better luck with the next self-imposed assignment.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

What a Mommy I had

Now that's a workhorse cookbook.
Hello. Happy New Year. Is the light in January harsher and more fluorescent than in December? Or is that my imagination?

Yesterday, I pulled out my copy of San Francisco a La Carte to make yet another batch of Nanaimo bars (I will link to the story when it runs, which will probably not happen until I write it) and the book almost fell apart in my hands.

Way back in 1979 my mother gave me a copy of San Francisco A La Carte and she inscribed it, as she inscribed all the cookbooks she gave me. One day I will write about those books, but not today. This post already rambles enough, as you will see.
Can you read that?
Opening the book yesterday and rereading the inscription, I was surprised to see that "Mommy" was still in play in 1979. I was 13, which is old for "Mommy." My children haven't called me "Mommy" in years.

But here's a sad/sweet/strange little story. When I was 42 and sitting at my desk one August afternoon, decades after I had last called my mother "Mommy," the phone rang. It was my mother, weeping, phoning from a doctor's office, and she said, "Jen, I have a tumor." And I cried out, "Mommy!"

That was definitely the last time.

I cooked compulsively from San Francisco A La Carte when I was 13, 14, 15. Do you think maybe I was a nerd? I just counted: I made 82 recipes from the book, including the cold peach soup and the molded cucumber mousse, and I know this because, as I've mentioned before, I write in cookbooks. My copy of San Francisco a la Carte contains 82 stilted and sometimes funny notations. Unintentionally funny.
No, rancid butter is never a good idea. 
Anyway, while ambling down memory lane, I spotted a carrot cake recipe and since Mark loves carrot cake and it was his birthday yesterday, I baked it.
And I thought I was such a good speller.

The cake was lovely, not at all "average." It was very soft, simple, and carroty and made me think we went wrong when we started putting pineapple, coconut, and walnuts into carrot cake batter, a trend I date to The Silver Palate, though I'm no culinary historian.

Isabel asked me why I would ever make a cake that I had once deemed "average." I told her I didn't know anything about carrot cake when I was 13, which clearly I didn't.

My one carrot cake wish is that it would look as odd, orange, and wonderful after it is baked as it does before.

The recipe is at the end of the post. It's really good and really easy.

Our love for The Homesick Texan continues to grow. No pictures because I've given up flash photos after dark as the results are always dismal. New Year's night I made Lisa Fain's barbecued brisket (slab of beef robustly seasoned, tightly wrapped in foil, baked for 6 hours) which I served with her coffee-chipotle barbecue sauce  (recipe here) and terrific string beans with cilantro pesto (recipe here.) I couldn't have been happier.

No, I could have been happier. The next night I made her Frito pie and I was happier. Do you all know about Frito pie? Chili poured over Fritos. I didn't grow up with this, but have eaten it on a handful of occasions, including straight out of a cut-open Frito bag. You need to make Fain's Frito pie. A non-pharmacological mood enhancer for glum January. Forget the diet, and while you're forgetting, try Fain's Dr. Pepper ribs. I'd give them 45 extra minutes in the oven to ensure melting tenderness. Recipe is here.  With the ribs I served Fain's cornbread, which is of the unsweetened Southern variety. This upset Owen, but no one else. I've never used bacon fat in cornbread before and highly recommend it as the crust positively crackled.

Yes, I have willfully forgotten the diet. I have not even told you about the nightly milk punch experiments. Milk punch = warm, alcoholic milkshake. But the new year doesn't really start for a parent until the kids go back to school and that is next week.

Carrot cake

I changed this only slightly, reducing the cinnamon, omitting lemon extract from the icing, and using parchment in the pans.


2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
4 eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
heaping 4 cups grated raw carrots (9-10)


8 ounces softened cream cheese
4 tablespoons softened butter
2 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease 3 8-inch round cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment.

2. Whisk together the the dry ingredients. Beat the eggs until frothy in another bowl, then beat in the oil. Add the dry ingredients and stir well. Stir in the carrots. Pour into the cake pans and bake for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick tests clean. Cool completely and turn out on to a cake rack.

3. Put all the frosting ingredients in a bowl and beat until thoroughly creamy and smooth. It's very easy to under-do this and end up with lumps of cream cheese, so beat hard and long.

4. Ice the cake, using just a little frosting between the layers. Frost the top and sides. I thought this might not be enough icing, but it is. I think as a culture we sometimes overfrost cakes. Serves 12-16.